If there is one event which is central to the entire ethos of Shia Islam it is the martyrdom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali (a grandson of Muhammad the founder of Islam) and 72 of his followers at the hands of a 40’000-strong army of Yazid Ibn Muawiyah Ibn Abu Sufyan in 680 AD at the battle of Kerbala. Here is how these events are recounted on the website of the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon:
IMAM HUSSEIN’S UPRISING:
Prophet Mohammed’s grandson Hussein (peace be upon them), was martyred along with his household and companions in the land of Karbala more than 1400 years ago. Imam Hussein stressed that the reason for his uprising against Yazid son of Moawiya was to revive the noble teachings of Islam and the genuine practice of his grandfather Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him and his household). Muslims, whether Sunnis or Shiites, say that Yazid who wanted to force Imam Hussein to acknowledge him as Caliphate, was a corrupt and incompetent person who practiced all sorts of wrongdoings contrary to the teachings of Islam.
IMAM HUSSEIN IN MEDINA:
The martyr of Karbala, while at his grand¬father’s grave in Medina got his reassurances in dreams where the Messenger of God spoke to him in words of affection and great sorrow;
“Oh Hussein my beloved, I see thee soon spattered in thy blood, slain in the spot of Karbala, the spot of karb (sorrow) and bala (calamity) by a wicked gang of my community (ummah), thirsty with no one to give thee water to drink. Will they nonetheless seek my intercession nay, may God not grant them my intercess¬ion on the Day of Judgment.” The Imam confronted Yazid for his open corruption and incompetence. The issue was so important for the Imam that although he could have saved himself by compromising with the oppressive government of Yazid, he rose for the interest of Islam and Muslims and sacrificed his life and that of his near and dear ones so that humanity could have an eternal model. Thus, the movement of Imam Hussein is not confined to his times. It is for every era and every place.
IMAM REACHES KARBALA:
Imam Hussein reached the spot of Karbala on the second of Muharram 61 A.H. The father of free men (Imam Hussein) asked his companions what the place was called and they answered Naynawa. He asked again whether it was known by any other name. He was told that it was also known as al-Ghadiriyya. Is there any other name by which it was known? he asked. This time the answer came: “Karbala”. He then remarked: “We are God’s and to Him we return. This is the spot of Karb (sorrow) and Bala (calamity). This is the last station of our journey; this is the place wherein our blood will be shed.”
THE TRAGEDY OF THE 10TH OF MUHARRAM:
So, after nine days of attempts by the Imam to move the hearts of his enemies and reproach to them for their cruelty, came Friday or Saturday, the 10th of Muharram, 61 A.H. . This was when the greatest tragedy in Islam took place. Ibn Sa’d, the chief of Yazid’s army, ordered his men to prepare for battle. He himself shot an arrow in the direction of Imam Hussein’s camp saying: “Bear witness for me with the Amir (Ibn Ziyad, the ruler of Kufa) that I was the first to shoot an arrow.” The battle started and Imam Hussein’s valor and devoted companions were martyred one after another, mostly in single combat.
The first to die of Imam Hussein’s own family was his eldest son ‘Ali al-Akbar. Then Abul Fadl al-Abbas, his brother seeing the suffering of the women and children from thirst made his way to the water among swords and spears, and under a barrage of arrows. He got the water for the thirsty ones, but on his way back he was attacked and killed after a desperate and courageous fight.
Imam Hussein called the enemy camp for a drink of water for his newborn son Abdullah. A man shot an arrow into the child’s neck which slew him in his father’s lap.
IMAM HUSSEIN ADDRESSES KUFANS:
Just before the battle, he addressed the Kufans saying:
Do therefore remember who my ancestors were and know who I am, then return to your own consciences and reprimand them. Behold whether it is lawful for you to kill me and violate my sanctity. Am I not the son of your Prophet, the son of his legate and cousin who was the first to believe in God and confirm His Apostle in what He revealed to him. Is not Hamzah the first of martyrs my father’s uncle and is not Ja’far al-Tayyar of the two wings flying in Paradise my uncle? Did no good man among you relate to you the saying of the Apostle of God concerning me and my brother ‘these two are the masters of the youths of the people of Paradise’? So if you believe not what I say, and it is the truth; for by God I never told a lie since I knew that God (exalted be He) loathes lying and harms by it only those who abide in it. But if you belie me, there are those among you whom you could ask . . . (here he enumerates most of the still living companions of the Prophet and then continues) they can tell you that they heard this saying from the Prophet concerning me and my brother. Is there not in this a cause to prevent you from shedding my blood?
Among the people whose hearts were indeed moved was al-Hurr al-Amili, the man first sent by Ibn Ziyad to compel Imam Hussein to surrender.
IMAM HUSSEIN THE MASTER OF ALL MARTYRS:
At the end of the day Shimr Ibn-Thee el-Jawshan urged men to kill Imam Hussein who had already received many arrows and stabs by sword and spear. The Imam lay dying on the ground spattered with his blood. It was Shimr who came forward, knelt on his chest, stabbed him many times with his sword, while the other laughed saying: “Praise God who had sent the most evil of his creatures to kill him,” and then cut off his head. The head was sent with the other heads of Imam Hussein’s companions first to Ibn Ziyad who dispatched them along with the women (Sabaya) including Imam Hussein’s sister Sayyida Zeinab (pbuh), and children as captives to Yazid in Damascus. Only Imam Ali, Zayn al-Abidin son of Imam Hussein, then a sick boy, survived this tragedy.
BLOOD TRIUMPHS OVER SWORD
Be that as it may the martyrdom of Imam has provided food for thought and devotion for many generations up to this day. It has received countless interpretations, and every generation sees its struggle in the light of his struggle. In this sense blood triumphed over the sword and Imam Hussein peace be upon him gained victory and Yazid lost.
Now I can well imagine some of my readers, in particular the agnostics/atheists, rolling their eyes at all this wondering how all this relevant to the modern times. The answer is that it would be a huge mistake to overlook the faith and piety of others simply because one cannot understand, or does not share, them.
The Shia, who have been oppressed for many centuries, have built their entire spiritual lives on the heroic example of the martydom of Imam Husayn ibn Ali and an unbreakable resolve never to allow such an event (the murder of a pious servant of God in the indifference of everybody) to happen again.
It is hardly possible to overemphasize the importance of martyrdom for the Shia (Think not of those who are slain in Allah’s way as dead. Nay, they live, finding their sustenance in the presence of their Lord; Qur’an, 2:214). Interestingly, the Arabic word Shaheed has exactly the same meaning as the Greek word μάρτυς (martis, or martyr): it means “witness”. In other words, both Islam and original (Orthodox) Christianity believe that being a martyr is being a true witness of God, in the former case through the example of Imam Ali and in the latter through the example of Christ.
The “Hollywood educated” western mind has somehow accepted the fallacy that wars are won by fancy technologies, that when the next war comes, it shall be “US stealth fighters versus old Iranian F4s” or “Israeli F16s versus Hezbollah katuishas”. This is an extremely naive and ignorant view of warfare. Future wars will oppose two kind of combattants: one who believes that his fancy hardware will win the battle for him against a deeply pious opponent who, above all else, is determined not to ever allow the truth to be trampled by evil again and who views martyrdoom as the highest blessing one can ever hope for.
I should here that it would be equally wrong the believe the nonsense about the Muslim fighters as going into battle for some 72 virgins: this is a myth propagated by an ignorant western propaganda which projects its own crude fantasies upon a culture it cannot understand. Unlike some Wahabis, the Shias do not seek death in battle at all. They, in fact, will go to great lenghts to avoid it. They do so, however, with a full willingness to accept it if circumstances require it.
About two million Shia Muslims marched in Kerbala today, and another million gathered around Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut to commemorate the Ashura. These huge crowds are gathering while their leaders warn them that the risks of war are extremely high (see Hassan Nasrallah’s speech posted here yesterday). The next wars can take many forms: Israel can invade Gaza, Israel can invade Lebanon, Israel can strike at Iran, the USA can strike at Iran or a combination of any or all of the above. What the leaders of the Empire should understand is that the Shia world is more than ready to taken them on. They should also remember Mark Twain’s words that ‘it is not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog‘ which determines the outcome.
Do they really believe that they have more “fight in their guts” than the Shia commemorating the Ashura today?
NB: Although I tried to understand and outline the importance of the Ashura the best I can, I am necessarily limited in my understanding of this day by the fact that I am not a Muslim myself. I therefore apologize for any mistakes or omissions I might have made in my description above, and I strongly urge any Shia Muslim reading this to add his/her commentary or criticisms here for the benefit of all. Many thanks in advance! VS